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CASA Volunteers Can Help Mitigate the Effects of Parental Incarceration

Written by: Hailey Katzenberger, Intern

According to Science, Mass Incarceration will be celebrating its “50th Birthday” in 2023, citing 1973 as the year when prison rates began to rise rapidly and result in the United States’ current word-record levels of incarceration (Lee and Wildeman, 2021). The Prison Policy Initiative’s (PPI) 2021 report marked the United States as having the highest incarceration rate in the world at 664 for every 100,000 people, with around 2 million people incarcerated in the nation. The country with the next-highest rate is El Salvador, with 562 people for every 100,000 (Widra and Herring, 2021). Those incarcerated do not live in a vacuum. In one way or another, they have families, and many of them have children. Turney and Goodsell (2018) find that approximately 2.6 million children, or 4% of the population under the age of 18, currently have at least one parent behind bars. Further, the Annie E. Casey Foundation finds that around 5.1 million children have had a parent incarcerated at some point in their lives (AEC Foundation, 2016). With the rapid increase of incarceration throughout the nation, the extent of its impacts rises as well. Various studies have found that having an incarcerated parent impacts children’s well-being mentally and developmentally, as well as socioeconomically. Research has also shown that having a stable, adult, mentor-like figure in a youth’s life, such as a CASA, can help mitigate these effects and have positive outcomes for the youth’s future.

Researchers reveal that incarceration does, in fact, impact the children and families of those incarcerated. Lee and Wildeman (2021) find that “across a range of indicators … family member incarceration has negative effects on family well-being above and beyond existing disadvantages prior to incarceration.” Their research finds that incarceration, especially paternal incarceration, affects family structure, lowers prosocial family engagement, and increases economic hardship in families (Lee and Wildeman, 2021). Research also shows that these effects reverberate and become concentrated in the children of such families, often resulting in externalizing and physically aggressive behaviors (Lee and Wildeman, 2021). Turney (2014) specifically investigated what these behavioral issues include and found that controlling for a variety of socioeconomic factors; five outcomes are “significantly related to parental incarceration: learning disabilities, ADD/ADHD, behavioral or conduct problems, developmental delays, and speech or language problems.” Turney concluded that parental incarceration affects children’s health in the same way that divorce or other adverse family experiences, and it often has more severe impacts than these other experiences (Turney, 2014). Turney and Goodsell (2018) summarize their findings: “The trauma experienced by the children, as well as the corresponding loss resulting from the incarcerated parent’s physical and emotional absence, may hinder children’s behavioral and cognitive development.”

In addition to behavioral health effects, parental incarceration also has consequences on children’s quality of life. Sykes and Pettit (2015) acknowledge that “scholarship shows that incarceration places children at significant risk of material hardship using a variety of indicators that include residential instability, having utilities disconnected, having unmet medical needs, and receiving free food.” This “material deprivation and insecure attachments that children experience are likely to affect their cognitive development and emotional states” (Sykes and Pettit, 2015), directly attributed to and likely exacerbating the mental effects explored previously. The ultimate conclusion of Sykes and Pettit’s 2015 study was that

Overall, children who have had a parent incarcerated are twice as likely to live in poverty as children who have not experienced parental incarceration. Roughly one in five children who have not experienced parental incarceration live in poverty, compared to 40 percent of minors who have experienced parental incarceration. (Sykes and Pettit, 2015)

This phenomenon was observed as particularly prevalent in instances of paternal incarceration. Much of it was attributed to residential instability and the loss of a primary breadwinner in the family and measured by the receipt of assistance from aid programs and involvement in institutional systems: “having an incarcerated parent increases program participation by two to four percentage-points” (Sykes and Pettit, 2015). Ultimately, parental incarceration solidifies social inequality by exposing already at-risk children to further hardships and deprivation. Berger et al. (2016) identify Child Protective Services (CPS) as one system that intersects significantly with parental incarceration. They found that paternal incarceration may increase the risk of CPS involvement in four ways: by reducing family economic stability, reducing maternal well-being and social support, increasing family instability, and leading to poorer post-incarceration parenting (Berger et al., 2016). Berger et al. also note that “parental incarceration may lead to poorer quality parenting and caregiving environments and, thereby, child maltreatment and CPS involvement. If so, children may continue to be at risk of CPS involvement even after parents are released from prison” (2016). Another important consideration is social selection, as “the same types of parents who are likely to become incarcerated are also likely to be involved with CPS for suspected or confirmed child maltreatment, independent of being incarcerated” (Berger et al. 2016). This correlation highlights the relevance of programs such as CASA in this phenomenon.

In addition to exploring the effects of parental incarceration on children, much research has been conducted about programs for mitigating these effects, including advocacy and mentorship organizations similar to CASA. Merenstein et al. (2011) conducted one such study, finding that

intervening in the lives of children with an incarcerated parent to preserve and strengthen positive family connections can yield constructive societal benefits in the form of reduced recidivism, less intergenerational criminal justice system involvement and the promotion of healthy child development.

Through interviewing a group of children with incarcerated parents, as well as other involved parties (attorneys, case workers, etc.) the study found that having a mentor in a child’s life is extremely important, particularly to help develop communication and maintain a sense of constancy and consistency for the child (Merenstein et al., 2011). As long as communication is consistent and thorough, mentorships can be extremely useful, similar to CASA DC’s mission of providing every child and young person in DC who has experienced trauma with a caring adult who will advocate for their best interests while developing a relationship of trust.

At CASA DC, advocates can help support children with incarcerated parents, as the cited studies show a significant correlation between CPS youth, who are thus likely to be involved in CASA DC, and those with incarcerated parents. CASA volunteers can provide the support and consistency that these youth need in order to mitigate or prevent the adverse effects that parental incarceration can create. The research is clear: a parent’s incarceration is extremely disruptive in a child’s life, whether internally or externally to the child. It can be so much so that it leads to a child’s involvement in the family court system, exposing them to the need for a CASA volunteer. Experiencing parental incarceration, in addition to the circumstances that land them in family court, is destabilizing and can be traumatic. CASA volunteers can be just the right mentor that these youth need in order to navigate the situations they experience.

You, too, can be this consistent adult in a youth’s life and serve as a mentor for a youth in need. Learn more and apply to volunteer today at


Berger, L. M., Cancian, M., Cuesta, L., & Noyes, J. L. (2016). Families at the Intersection of the Criminal Justice and Child Protective Services Systems. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 665(1).

Foundation, A. E. C. (2016, April 19). Children of Incarcerated Parents, a Shared Sentence.

Lee, H., & Wildeman, C. (2021). Assessing mass incarceration’s effects on families. Science, 374(6565), 277–281.

Merenstein, B., Tyson, B., Tilles, B., Keays, A., & Rufffolo, L. (2011). Issues Affecting the Efficacy of Programs for Children with Incarcerated Parents. Journal of Correctional Education, 62(3), 166–174.

Sykes, B. L., & Pettit, B. (2015). Severe deprivation and system inclusion among children of incarcerated parents in the United States after the Great Recession. RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences, 1(2), 108–132.

Turney, K. (2014). Stress proliferation across generations? examining the relationship between parental incarceration and childhood health. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 55(3), 302–319.

Turney, K., & Goodsell, R. (2018). Parental Incarceration and Children's Wellbeing. The Future of Children, 28(1), 147–164.

Widra, E., & Herring, T. (2021, September). States of Incarceration: The Global Context 2021.

Prison Policy Initiative.

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